Saturday, January 27, 2018

Timo Andres’ “World Building” Exercise

Last night at the Strand Theater, San Francisco Performances presented the third program in this week’s four-concert PIVOT festival. As had been reported this past Thursday, the second program had brought together an impressive assembly of performers, all coordinated by pianist Sarah Cahill, to honor the centennial of the birth of the composer Lou Harrison. By way of contrast, last night offered a solo recital by pianist Timo Andres, who featured the works of three American composers, the oldest, Eric Shanfield, having been born in 1979. Andres, born in 1985, himself is younger than all three of these composers. The other two were Caroline Shaw, born in 1982, and Christopher Cerrone, born in 1984.

Each composer was represented by a single piece. They were presented in a context established by compositions selected from the first of the two volumes of Leoš Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path. All of the ten pieces in this volume (of which eight were performed) were given evocative titles serving as either denotative or connotative description. Description also lay at the heart of the music of the three recent composers, leading Andres to introduce his program as an evening of “world making.”

This all made for a promising evening with a program that looked very good on paper. Unfortunately, making good on the promise was a major challenge. In the domain of text types, realizing description through words is one of the most challenging undertakings; and, if description is already intimidatingly difficult when it comes to putting marks on paper (and I am reminded of that difficulty every day of my working life), it is all the more difficult when it involves phenomena that only “exist” by virtue of the passing of time. From this point of view, Janáček’s short piano pieces are almost overwhelmingly impressive. Each one reflects its assigned title with only a few brief gestures; yet the sensitive listener, particularly if (s)he is familiar with the subtleties of the composer’s prose-like rhetoric, readily learns how to “get it” for each of the titled compositions in the first volume of On an Overgrown Path.

Sadly, none of the three living composers came close to Janáček in taking on the task of description. Andres provided a text statement for the program book, which enumerated what each of those composers intended to describe; but there was little, if any, indication that any of them “got it.” Cerrone even resorted for descriptive titles for the first two of the three movements of his “The Arching Path.” At best, however, these only helped a Google user to home in on the image of the bridge he had in mind:

The Musmeci bridge over the Basento River in Potenza, Italy (from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Note, however, that it is not the path above that is arching but the concrete surface that, though a skilled understanding of properties of the material, has been twisted and turned as if it were rubber.

Sadly, about all Andres could communicate through performing this piece was that it went on for a very long time. Nevertheless, there was a certain consistency to its “linguistic toolkit,” affirming that, even if the composer spoke too long, he had clearly put much thought into how he was saying it. Shaw’s “Gustave le Gray,” named after a pioneer of photography, was far more outrageous. In the midst of a somewhat pointillist rhetoric, which may have reflected the graininess of early photographic images, she inserted “whole cloth” the fourth (in A minor) of the four mazurkas that Frédéric Chopin published as his Opus 17. Was all that pointillism supposed to be photographic technology applied to a “portrait of Chopin” as the “subject?” Only The Shadow knows! More satisfying was Shanfield’s “Utopia Parkway,” which had a playfulness that served its task of paying homage to Joseph Cornell, even if the object of that playfulness was more than a little remote to those familiar with Cornell’s works.

Unfortunately, the “Janáček framework” did not fare much better than the new works being framed. Andres never seemed to warm up to that prose-like rhetorical stance that the composer took. As a result, while all of the notes were in their proper places, the attentive listener could never really grasp the “conversational” style of description behind the music. Everything had to do with pitch classes and sharply contrasting dynamic levels, but Andres never seemed to recognize how these were the building blocks of so many extraordinarily well-shaped phrases.

Perhaps the original intention behind Andres’ program was that Janáček would serve as a platform on which this new generation of composers could stand; instead, those composers tended to “lower the bar,” bringing down Janáček’s best qualities as a composer along with it.

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